As a captain, John McCrea was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s naval aide and the first commanding officer of the USS Iowa (BB-61)—the same two billets in the same sequence held by fictional Captain Pug Henry, protagonist of Herman Wouk’s novel War and Remembrance. But as the admiral told Naval Institute director of oral history John T. Mason Jr. on 1 May 1981, his first tastes of battleship life came several decades earlier.
The first midshipman cruise that I took from the Naval Academy, in the summer of 1912, was on board the old USS Massachusetts (BB-2). Well, nothing can be more distraught than living with a bunch of people going to sea on a ship who have never been there before. We didn’t have anybody to ask, excepting our officers, whom we didn’t want to bother, or the boatswain’s mate or somebody.
I fell in with a boatswain’s mate who was a real character. His name was Smith, he had a red beard, and he talked with a Norwegian accent. We got to be good friends. He always referred to me as Mr. McCrea, and here I was but 21 years old. He was the boatswain’s mate of the upper deck, fourth division, and he would let me sit on his sea chest, which was his office.
Men in those days made their own clothes. Wednesday afternoons were always known as “rope yarn Sundays,” when men made and mended clothes. Smith had in his chest three sets of patterns. When a chap would go buy his cap cloth, as they called it, from the small stores, he would bring it up to Smith. Smith would take a look at him and would say, “Well, you take the number-two pattern.” They would lay down the pattern, cut out the cloth, and sew their own uniforms. The jumper’s right breast pocket was then lined with green silk, and the left pocket with red silk—just like port and starboard running lights on a ship.
I remember Smith once telling me, “You know, Mr. McCrea, the bluejackets today aren’t the way they used to be.”
I said, “That’s right, I suppose. And that’s one of the penalties, that as people get older, they think that about the young. In what respect are these young fellows different now than they were in your time?”
“Well, I’ll tell you what, too damn many of them can read and write.”
In the early 1900s, under the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, it came to the President’s attention that a great many of the sailors in our service were foreigners, so he got a bill through Congress that provided for extra pay—I think it was $6 or $7 a month or something like that—if one could prove his American citizenship.
Following my second year as a midshipman, in 1913, I was in several ships: the Connecticut (BB-18), South Carolina (BB-26), and Ohio (BB-12). Our first-class cruise was exceedingly interesting. We left the Naval Academy the first week of June 1914 in three ships. The USS Idaho (BB-24) was the one I was in. I think we should keep in mind how suddenly the war broke out in the summer of 1914. I am convinced that the Navy Department never would have sent three battleships loaded with midshipmen to the Mediterranean if they had the slightest idea that war was going to be declared. Our problem was made a little bit more difficult by the fact that the Navy agreed to sell the Idaho to Greece.
Well, the Idaho was a very fine little ship; there’s no question about that. In the final weeks of peace, we had a great time as tourists. We went up to Rome. I stood there in the ruins of the Colosseum, looking in all directions and hoisting aboard everything in the way of sightseeing I could think of. All of the American midshipmen had an audience with the Pope, and we really saw lots of interesting things.
We were in the harbor of Villefranche, France, when World War I was declared on the fourth of August. The rest of our squadron carried out their original itinerary and were in England when the war began. The Navy Department sent the USS Maine (BB-10) to the Mediterranean to pick up the crew of the Idaho (which would be replaced by the Greek crew) and also us midshipmen.
The United States government actually sold our ship to the New York Shipbuilding Company as an intermediary. Someplace in one of my boxes I have the last log of the USS Idaho. I was assistant navigator, and William A. Glassford, who later got to be an outstanding flag officer, was the navigator. When we struck our flag, our captain turned to this shipbuilding chap, and he said, “The ship is now yours.”
Of course, U.S. Navy ships had been declared dry on the first of July 1914. But the man from New York Shipbuilding opened up a handbag and pulled out four or five bottles of whiskey. He said, “This is my ship, and I am inviting you naval officers [waving his hand at us and the Greeks] to have a glass with me.”
Midshipmen weren’t supposed to drink, but Glassford said to me, “You’d better get a little sip, at any rate.” When they got through having their drinks, the shipbuilding fellow turned the ship over to the Greek captain, and we were gone.